There is a strong argument to be made for this being the most impressive and creative Move record front to back. It was the springboard for everything that Wood was to take on throughout the decade, and it’s a key recording in the development of progressive rock from a band who scarcely ever get credit for just how much they were pushing the barriers.
It’s a strange thing about The Move that when the name is mentioned, most people will probably think of them being defined by the psych-pop of Flowers In The Rain (the first record played on Radio One, as the perennial pub quiz question has it), the propulsive pop-rock of Fire Brigade, or the hugely successful ballad Blackberry Way. All excellent stuff, for sure, but of the four albums released by the band between 1968 and 1971, only the self-titled debut is really representative of that in any way. Over the course of Shazam and Looking On, both from 1970, and 1971’s Message From The Country, Roy Wood took them down strange paths of his own imagination, first pointing towards the later direction of ELO and then, after Jeff Lynne joined, co-existing with them. Released in February of 1970 by a band in some transition, Shazam just predates the arrival of Lynne but still sounds as remarkable today as it must have been to largely baffled pop fans 54 years ago. Note, however, that depite the title being given an exclamation mark on many occasions, there is none – it is in quotation marks as ‘Shazam’, not Shazam! The word, of course, is that spoken by the comics character Billy Batson to transform himself in to Captain Marvel – hence the rather questionable superhero band illustrations on the cover! The word is made up of the initials of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury – which does sound like a band to give Emerson, Lake And Palmer a run for their money…
1969 had seen no Move album releases, as they spent the year playing the cabaret circuit for much of the time, driving the insanely creative Wood almost round the twist – and while singer Carl Wayne adjusted well to the depressing chicken-in-a-basket crowd, it couldn’t go on, and indeed Shazam is the last appearance of Wayne, who left just before the album’s release, to be replaced by the incoming Lynne. Bassist Trevor Burton had also left, ironically citing the band’s overly commercial direction, considering the off-the-wall nature of much of this experimentally inspired release. Rick Price came in to replace him, and also went on to play with Wood in Wizzard. In the midst of all of this turmoil, there hadn’t been a whole lot of songwriting going on, so what we get here is six extended tracks, three written by Wood along with three deliciously warped covers, though even two of the three Wood songs weren’t new at the time. If that sounds like a grab-bag of odds and ends, it really isn’t, even though several of the tracks are segued into with some Bonzo Dog / Python-esque spoken word ‘interview’ snippets. These parts are brief enough not to outstay their welcome, and still entertaining and amusing for the most part.
Let’s look at the tracks though. The first side of this reissued and reproduced vinyl is the ‘Wood’ half, containing his songs, and it opens with Hello Susie, a song he had written for Amen Corner, who had taken it into the charts the previous year with a far jauntier pop arrangement than this deftly arranged prog-tinged rocker which runs to almost double the length. You might remember it from the Amen Corner version, but if not you may certainly note that the chorus could pass more than comfortably for Yellow River by Christie on a dark night with a hat on. Both singles were released around a similar time, so it would appear to have been one of those coincidences which crop up from time to time, and although it isn’t Wood’s greatest song ever, this version is a huge improvement over that single release, and a strong album opener. Following that is the only brand new song here, the string-drenched Beautiful Daughter, which unashamedly uses the arrangement template of Eleanor Rigby to create a quite charming, if unavoidably Beatles-scented three minute ballad. That’s two good tracks to open with, but nothing to push the envelope yet – but that’s just around the corner with the closing track on the side.
On the Move debut album, Wood had penned a decent enough track about an asylum entitled Cherry Blossom Clinic. For this release, he follows it up with an astonishingly updated version called Cherry Blossom Clinic Revisited, and ‘revisited’ doesn’t tell the half of it. It’s more like ‘Cherry Blossom Clinic demolished, rebuilt, reopened in an entirely new form and finally given over to the inmates’. Expanded to almost eight minutes, the first part of the song takes the rough form of the original, and pummels it into a new shape with a heavier arrangement, greater urgency and energy, and a much greater depth. The real rebuild, however, comes shortly after the three minute mark when an entirely new and lengthy closing section comes in with pieces by Bach and Tchaikovsky being rearranged and turned into a classical-rock fusion tour de force featuring some brilliant acoustic guitar from Wood, deftly arranging Bach’s Jesu Joy Of Men’s Desiring for an entirely new instrument. It’s still quite astonishing stuff even now, and it closes the brief 15-minute side in style – though the second side weighs in at an unbalanced 24 minutes and takes things to almost the 40 minute mark. Perhaps Beautiful Daughter should have swapped places with a track on the second side to even up the length, but that’s a side observation.
The first track of the three side two ‘covers’ is Fields Of People, originally recorded by the early psych-proggy outfit Ars Nova, but here extended from three minutes to over ten! The first six minutes are given over to a great updating of the original, upping the prog content and the ‘psychedelic folk-rock’ feel of the verses, and generally bringing out its true potential. After six minutes, however, there is a complete left-field change as we plunge into a sitar-driven raga-rock jam. Even in those wildly eclectic days of the early ’70s a sitar jam would be thought unusual, but it works brilliantly, and along with Cherry Blossom makes up a quite brilliant 18 minutes of music as the album’s joint centrepiece. Following that was always going to be hard, and to be honest the almost heavy metal reimagining of the old Frankie Laine hit Don’t Make My Baby Blue doesn’t really manage it. There’s plenty of heavy bluster, in a way which calls to mind the first Led Zeppelin album, but there isn’t enough there to sustain the interest quite enough. Fortunately, that’s the only blot on the landscape, as we’re in ‘inspired rearrangement’ territory again for the closing version of Tom Paxton’s standard The Last Thing On My Mind. The band take the restrained balladic original and morph it into a seven minute cross between Turn Turn Turn-era Byrds and a deliciously prog-rock instrumental section, taking the whole thing into the realms of an epically dramatic rock showpiece. If the young Meatloaf and Jim Steinman had walked in while this was being played back, we might have got Bat Out Of Hell seven years early. A tremendous closer which retains the basis and the spirit of the original song and builds on that foundation superbly.
The even more experimental Looking On followed this later in the same year, before the last-gasp Message From The Country in 1971, but there is a strong argument to be made for this being the most impressive and creative Move record front to back. It was the springboard for everything that Wood was to take on throughout the decade, and it’s a key recording in the development of progressive rock from a band who scarcely ever get credit for just how much they were pushing the barriers. Fine stuff indeed.